On Cognition and the Digital in the Study of Ancient Textual Artefacts

Ségolène Tarte (Oxford)

Digital Classicist London & Institute of Classical Studies seminar 2014

Friday June 6th at 16:30, in Room 103 (Holden Room), Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Video recording of seminar (MP4)

Audio recording of seminar (MP3)

Presentation (PDF)

Presentation (PPT) (>120 MB)

This talk will present some cognitive aspects of the study of Ancient textual Artefacts and how understanding these cognitive processes has the potential to influence, complement, and ultimately enhance the use of digital tools. As such, it will situate itself at the confluence of the Digital Humanities and of the Cognitive Humanities.

Scholars studying Ancient Textual Artefacts endeavour to create knowledge through the decipherment, transcription, transliteration, edition, commentary, and contextualization of textual artefacts, thereby transforming data and information into knowledge and meaning. Their task is hence intrinsically interpretative, and relies heavily on the mobilization of both perceptual and conceptual cognitive processes.

To illustrate the claim that the act of knowledge creation is interpretative, I will briefly present the example of a Roman tablet that was interpreted once in 1917 and a second time in 2009. I will then argue that the act of digitization of Ancient Textual Artefacts already participates in the act of interpretation of textual artefacts, thereby conferring to the digitized versions of the textual artefacts three ontological characteristics making them into avatars of textual artefacts.

I will then describe how, in an effort to integrate these observations into the design and development of digital tools, I have focused on analysing the expert practices of scholars working with ancient textual artefacts. Applying ethnographic methodologies and cross-referencing my findings with results from the cognitive sciences literature, I was able to identify a set a perceptual processes that intervene in the act of interpretation of ancient textual artefacts, as well as a set of conceptual processes. I will highlight three types of perceptual, embodied processes: (1) visual processes, which, as I will illustrate through the example of digital modelling work conducted on the Artemidorus papyrus, can also involve physical interactions; (2) kinaesthetic processes, where the act of tracing the texts participates in decipherment – a claim that also holds true for undeciphered texts such as Proto-Elamite, as the cognitive sciences literature on pseudo-letters would seem to suggest; and (3) aural processes, where sounding out the texts can trigger breakthroughs – a claim supported by the literature on word recognition. I will then present three types of conceptual processes involving: (1) semantic memory, also involved in word recognition; (2) acquisition and mobilization of unconscious structural knowledge, for which the cognitive sciences literature on artificial grammar learning seems to suggest that exposure to structured scripts generates unconscious knowledge; and (3) insights (aka “aha!” moments), for which the literature on creativity proposes a wide variety of possible triggers.

I will conclude by claiming that by bringing the cognitive into the digital humanities, both the Cognitive Humanities and the Digital Humanities have the exciting potential to enrich each other and empower the humans doing Humanities research.


The seminar will be followed by wine and refreshments.